Monday, October 20, 2008

Five Book Reviews

The Little Gentleman
by Philippa Pearce
Recommended Age: 10+

Bet lives with her grandparents the Allums, and often accompanies her grandmother when Mrs. Allum cleans house for the eccentric Mr. Franklin. One day, after Mr. Franklin breaks his leg in a fall, he asks Bet to do him a strange favor. She is to go out to a tree stump in the garden and read aloud from a book about worms. Bet does as Mr. Franklin asks, and soon makes the acquaintance of a mole. A talking, intelligent mole who has been touched by magic.

Little by little, Bet's new friend tells her his strange history. Some parts of it are scary, some parts sad. The magic has given the "little gentleman" an unnaturally long life and the intelligence to communicate with humans; but it has cut him off from his true home, his true nature, and his own kind. Bet learns that she can help her friend get home. But to do that, she must lose him forever.

This brief tale from the author of Tom's Midnight Garden is filled with a young girl's confusion at a time of change in her life - a turning point in her family and in the way she views herself. The chance of happiness is mixed with the risk of disappointment, just as the chance to show true friendship is tinged with the fear and pain of loss. It is a touching story, and one full of vivid scenes of nature, history, and a terrible side of magic. I urge you to welcome Bet, her family, and her flawed but memorable loved ones into your life. I urge you to experience this book.

The Battle of Bubble and Squeak
by Philippa Pearce
Recommended Age: 10+

Bubble-and-squeak is more than just a fry-up of leftover cabbage, potato, and sausage. In this story by the author of Tom's Midnight Garden, Bubble and Squeak are two gerbils that become the focal point of a family war.

Young Sid owns the gerbils. His younger sisters Peggy and Amy love them. Their kind, softspoken stepfather doesn't mind them. But their Mum is driven to distraction by them, and can't wait to find a way to get rid of them. Just when it seems the two innocent pets will tear the family apart, it suddenly brings them together in a surprising, heart-touching way.

Not all tales have to have orphans, magic, and a cosmic battle of good and evil in them. Here we see everyday people - perhaps like your family - people with some good and evil in each of them, engaged in an everyday battle. I think the battle will engage you too.

The Alchemyst
by Michael Scott
Recommended Age: 12+

Not to be confused with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - notice the title of this book contains the letter y - here is the first book in a series called The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. If you haven't already spotted a reason this book should appeal to Harry Potter fans, you need to re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone.

Yes, this is the same Nicholas Flamel who discovered the secrets of turning lead into gold and coal into diamonds, and who learned how to brew an elixir of immortality. Rumors of his demise have been exaggerated. The grave were he and his wife Perenelle were supposedly buried in 1418 was soon dug up and found empty. And although you know that Dumbledore told Harry the Flamels were going to die, this book finds them alive, well, and running a book shop in San Francisco.

Soon after this book finds them there, so does their arch-enemy, the somewhat younger Dr. John Dee - who was only born in the 16th century, and who used to cast horoscopes for Queen Elizabeth I. Dee obviously doesn't need the elixir of life, but he is after something else the Flamels have: the Book of Abraham the Mage, otherwise known as the Codex. This magical book, dating back to the dawn of human civilization, contains knowledge that could bring back the ancient gods (also known as the Elder Race) and end the world as we humans (or humani) know it.

Dee nicks most of the book and Perenelle. The only thing stopping him from destroying modern civilization is the handful of pages he left in the grip of a terrified teenager named Josh Newman. Now Flamel, Josh, his twin sister Sophie, and a relatively young Elder named Scathach (Scatty to her friends) must quickly prepare to defend themselves against attacks by Dee and the older, stronger, darker forces he serves.

Prepare for a primer on world mythology, wrapped up in a thrilling adventure with magical battles, bizarre creatures, and a couple of scared kids who are only just beginning to learn about the power in store for them. For it is, after all, only the beginning of a series. Though it isn't quite in the top tier of fantasy-adventure books - one could, for example, fault it for a certain repetitiveness - it is enjoyable enough to ensure that I'll be reading book two, The Magician.

Eldest
by Christopher Paolini
Recommended Age: 12+

If you consider how strongly I endorsed Eragon - the first book of the Inheritance Trilogy - you might think it odd that it has taken me so long to get around to reading this second book. Written by the same youthful, Montana-based author, Eldest continues to follow the development of its hero from an illiterate, outdoorsy farmboy to a dragon-riding, magic-using, evil-emperor-defying warrior.

So why did I hesitate to read it? I don't know. Perhaps I was afraid - terrified, even - that it wouldn't measure up to the high standard of Paolini's debut. In fact, I'll even admit right now that I was swayed by a couple of strongly-worded internet rumors suggesting that Eldest was a huge failure. And the less-than-terrific movie based on the first book did nothing to encourage me to continue with the series. It was finally my boss's wife who convinced me that I had to read it. Besides, the final book - Brisingr - is out now, so I may soon know how the whole saga ended.

Now that I have read Eldest, I know that those vicious rumors were nothing more than irrational rantings. For I have now seen Paolini continuing to mature as a writer, and Eragon maturing with him. The series continues to draw on a broad background of past fantasy literature - not, as I have seen it unfairly described, in an act of plagiarism, but in a new synthesis and, at times, an homage to books we love. It is evident that Paolini loves them too. And it isn't just fantasy, either. When he casually dropped a sailor named Bonden into the story, I put the book down and did a little dance in the middle of my living room. Surely, any fantasy author who draws inspiration from Patrick O'Brian deserves the benefit of a doubt!

Eragon and his dragon partner Saphira have survived their battle with the tusked Urgals and the demoniac shade Durza. But Eragon has come away from the latter encounter with a crippling injury. Nevertheless, he goes to the enchanted forest of Du Weldenvarden to train among the elves - a highly accelerated training regimen, compressing a decade worth of studies into the months-long warmup to the next battle against the wicked King Galbatorix and his forces. At times, his physical and mental pain brings Eragon to the brink of despair. Meanwhile, he is frustrated in love, constantly provoked by a sparring partner who despises him, and pushed to the limits of his ability and beyond by a master who calls himself the Cripple Who Is Whole.

As moving as one may find the transformation that comes over Eragon during the main part of this book, no less compelling is the story of his cousin Roran. Embittered by Eragon's seemingly cowardly desertion the day their farm was burnt and Roran's father killed, Roran's anger grows when his village of Carvahall is threatened by the Empire's forces. A couple of hideous creatures called the Ra'zac are particularly interested in capturing Roran himself, because of what he may be able to tell them (under unthinkable torture) about Eragon. But the Ra'zac cross the line when they abduct Roran's fiancee.

In a trice, this soft-spoken man of the forest becomes a fiercely driven man of war, leading his small army on a desperate journey over mountains and sea, through breathtaking dangers, until the cousins finally meet on a battlefield. And on that battlefield, Eragon experiences the fulfillment of a prophecy, going all the way back to the first book, that someone in his family will betray him.

This middle book is a book about transformations. Some of the transformations - as in the cases of Roran and Eragon - are moving to behold. Others are horrifying; read the book and you'll know what I mean. Though perhaps Eragon's personal journey isn't as thick with thrilling incidents as it was in Book 1 - though at times Roran cuts a more heroic figure - he becomes more and more a force to be reckoned with. And then comes the awful surprise delayed until nearly the last chapter - a surprise you at least partly expect, because of promises made on the front cover. Honestly, I totally expected that surprise, and have dreaded it since witchy-woman Angela's prophecy in Eragon; but from his vantage point in the center of it all, Eragon had no reason to expect it. And reading the shock in his eyes was just as good as feeling surprised myself.

I won't delay your reading of Eldest any longer, except to warn you that it contains a magical mistake whose results will really creep you out; a battle (also involving magic) that may upset you almost as much as it upsets Eragon himself; and an elven Yoda whose atheistic philosophy of magic sounds, at least at one point, like a "god is not good" tirade by Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Paolini is welcome to his religious (or irreligious) convictions, and I don't blame him for bringing them to bear on his own fantasy world; I would only warn him that, by demystifying the magic of that world, he risks making it less magical for his readers. Perhaps this only poses a greater challenge to him in making Brisingr a satisfying climax to his trilogy. I think (and hope) he may be up to that challenge.

100 Cupboards
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Age: 12+

A reader named Emily sent me feedback saying I should read this book. Over the years I have become quite jaded about reader recommendations. Once or twice a year I forward a few hundred of them to the editors at MuggleNet and have them added to the Reader Recommended Titles list. Other than that, I don't concern myself much with what other people say I should read. I already have plans to read more books than I have time for. But then Emily wrote me a five-sentence email about 100 Cupboards and something she said - I really can't remember what it was - intrigued me enough to go to a bookstore. After I read what the dust-jacket said about it, I decided I had to read this book right away - hardcover or not. And I did. And now I thank Emily for nudging me toward the first book in a new fantasy series that I will surely, and eagerly, follow.

It begins when a boy named Henry steps off the bus in the small, remote town of Henry, Kansas. He has come to stay for a while with his Aunt Dotty and Uncle Frank, who at first remind one of the couple in the painting American Gothic, and with his cousins Penny, Anastasia, and (ha, ha) Henrietta. How long a while? Possibly forever, because Henry's parents have been kidnapped in Colombia and there is no way to be sure they'll ever come home. How does Henry feel about this? He feels guilty, in the second place, because in the first place he feels relieved. Henry's parents have raised him to fear everything. This has made it hard for him to fit in with other kids his age, hard to learn to do things he wants to do - like playing baseball - and really hard, as he soon finds out, to master his own fear and act with decisiveness and courage.

But the town called Henry will soon give the boy called Henry a chance to do all those things. It will be good practice. Especially the last bit. Because he will need to make courageous decisions as a terrifying, magical adventure unfolds around him. And he will need courage to face the question about who he really is and where he came from.

For Henry's real parents aren't the ones being held captive in Colombia. They are somewhere in another world, a world that exists perhaps in another time or another universe. Whatever world it is, though, there is a door that leads to it somewhere in the farmhouse owned by Uncle Frank and Aunt Dotty. It'll be one of the 99 worlds behind the 99 cupboard doors that Henry finds behind the plaster in his bedroom. But before he can find the world where he truly belongs, he must face a series of threatening letters from one of those worlds, a tremendously evil witch from another, and the ominous secret that lurks behind the door that no one has been able to open for two years. He will have to plunge into one hair-raisingly perilous world after another to save one of his cousins who has gotten lost. He will emerge with new friends, new enemies, and at least a hundred possibilities in store for his next adventure.

I immensely enjoyed this quirky, thrilling fantasy. I sympathized with Henry - I hate to say in how many ways - yet enjoyed a private snicker at the burn notice that addressed him as "Whimpering Child." I adored each individual in his family, from the quietly amazing Uncle Frank to the snotty little monster Anastasia. I stood in awe at the intellect, sensitivity, and originality evident in its writing. And I pass on to you what Emily passed on to me: a love of this book that I hope you, too, will share with others.

1 comment:

pamela said...

Brisingr is NOT the final book in the series. Paolini made the decision to add a forth book so the saga is not over yet. Sincerely, Pamela